It appears that the days where science was a great uniter are fading. The latest scientific dispute is centered around new research ethics embraced by an international scientific journal of science. That scientific journal is Nature, one of the more recognized multidisciplinary science journals which brands itself by claiming to publish the finest peer-reviewed research that drives ground-breaking discovery, and that it is read by thought-leaders and decision-makers around the world. But, to better understand Nature’s position, it is important to understand what science is and why it seems to be “under attack.”
The History of Science
Science has always been and will always continue to be the process of building knowledge about the world around us. It is the chase for the truth. A truth that constantly evolves, grows, modifies, and expands. It is based on empirical data, and it is objective, and that is what separates it from faith.
Many faith-based societies have long attempted to supress people asking questions and having free flow of thought. Of course, atheistic societies have not been any better. There are countless examples of both societies and the precedent-setting anti-science steps they took when it threatened their ruling classes’ power narrative by challenging historical narratives and social narratives. It has also resulted in the imprisonment and killing of individuals who were wrongly labelled as heretics, when in reality they were “gifts” given to man.
Nature’s Position of Research Ethics
In Nature’s statement on the new research ethics, it describes the starting point for the changes and the reason they deem them necessary as follows;
-“In creating this guidance, we took as a starting point the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — humans are “free and equal in dignity and rights”1. We drew on the several covenants and conventions of the United Nations (for example, refs. 2,3); existing frameworks for research with human participants (for example, refs. 4,5); and the ethics codes of disciplines such as sociology6,7 and anthropology8, which have traditionally considered harms that arise for communities or human groups beyond those directly involved in a research project.”
-“Editors, authors and reviewers will hopefully find the guidance helpful when considering and discussing potential benefits and harms arising from manuscripts dealing with human population groups categorized on the basis of socially constructed or socially relevant characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, national or social origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political or other beliefs, age, disease, (dis)ability or socioeconomic status.
In this guidance, we urge authors to be respectful of the dignity and rights of the human groups they study. We encourage researchers to consider the potential implications of research on human groups defined on the basis of social characteristics; to be reflective of their authorial perspective if not part of the group under study; and to contextualise their findings to minimize as much as possible potential misuse or risks of harm to the studied groups in the public sphere. We also highlight the importance of respectful, non-stigmatizing language to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and causing harm to individuals and groups.”
Although all of this seems to be rooted in good intentions, Nature completely loses me with the paragraph the paragraph that follows.
-“Advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good. In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication. Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication. For example, the guidance helps in considering whether it is ethically appropriate to question a social group’s right to freedom or cultural rights, above and beyond any considerations of scientific merit.”
There are so many contradictions in the paragraphs but let us start by saying that science owes us nothing and we owe science everything. Next, we need to consider the damage that “socially constructed or socially relevant characteristics” have caused throughout history. So many of those characteristics have been and are at war with one another, and it has been science that has served as the saviour in many of those instances. It is also necessary to recognize that there has been time throughout history where ‘researchers’ leveraged “science” to do harm.
In the end, science exists so that we question everything, and it is the driving force behind our pursuit towards the perfect society. That is why our focus needs to be being able to distinguish real science from fake science and learning how to reflect on real science even when it makes us uncomfortable, when it challenges existing truths that we thought were absolute.
For The Love of Science
The anti-science narrative is one that can be traced back to our earliest civilizations, but it is one of the reasons we have The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There is a fantastic summary on the importance of science titled “Science for Society”. That explanation describes how science is the greatest collective endeavor and how it nourishes our human spirit. “Science generates solutions for everyday life and helps us to answer the great mysteries of the universe. In other words, science is one of the most important channels of knowledge. It has a specific role, as well as a variety of functions for the benefit of our society: creating new knowledge, improving education, and increasing the quality of our lives.”
When I first learned about the new changes in research ethics it reminded me of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Harvard Commencement speech in 2014. In that speech he had a particular line about science, “People do not listen to facts that run counter to their ideology. They fear them. Nothing is more frightening than scientific evidence.”
There were also parts to Mayor Bloomberg’s speech that talked about universities having a tradition for being bastions for free thinking and free discussion, and how they seemed to be moving towards the censorship of conservative ideas. This is important because there are instances that demonstrate the exact opposite. Here in Canada, Western University’s decision to censor a anti-homophobia graphic poster due to religion, because it showed a two women in a hijab, one black and one white, who were kissing, made national headlines. Although the science clearly supports the existence of same sex couples as a natural occurrence around the world, Western University’s position was that theology took precedence over science because there was the chance that this graphic poster would upset people. As a result, the image of the two women in a hijab who were kissing was removed and the graphic poster was reposted.
Most of the “socially constructed or socially relevant characteristics” are diametrically opposed to one another and it seems that they can not peacefully co-exist together unless they under the watchful eye of science. If we love science, then we need to make sure it has our full support all of the time. We can not love science if we keep deciding to selectively uphold its ideals. That is why we need to decide whether we are for science or against it.